Polemicscat's Weblog

Examining settled and unsettling questions.

The Case for the King James Bible

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Some of us who grew up hearing the King James version of the Bible read at home and in church feel a little disappointed when we hear familiar passages read from one of the later translations.  It’s as though someone is trying to recite the Bible from memory and can’t quite get it right.  Are we just being sentimental about the matter?  I don’t think so.

Of course, having an accurate translation of the Bible is important if the meaning of a particular verse is crucial to theological doctrine.  But since we have concordances and other reader aids available for the King James version, are the other, more-recent English translations really necessary?

Aside from the desire for accuracy, another reason is given for publishing new versions: to make the Bible more accessible to the semi-literate.  It seems that the language of Shakespeare is too difficult for some modern readers.  So the Bible has been put into other kinds of English in the hope that a reader with poor language skills can be made to understand it.  It is an argument that could be used for translating any literary classic into a more modern English.

There has even been a street-language Bible published, presumably for those who can’t read standard modern English.  Or maybe the idea is to make it sound more “relevant” to our times.  But why would anyone want the Bible to sound as common as a laundry list?

Whatever the rationale for these new translations, their appearance has had unfortunate results.

If another authoritative English version was needed to replace the King James version, we still don’t have it.  Instead, we have several other versions, none of which commands the same widespread respect and acceptance that the King James version did.  And none of the new ones has enough authority to settle any doctrinal dispute.  Any dispute over meaning would have to be settled by referring to Greek and Hebrew texts anyway.

Since we now have numerous versions for each pastor or congregation to pick from, the English-speaking culture has lost a special Biblical language.  There was an advantage in  having a recognizable language for scripture.  It was a dignified language that set the Bible apart from daily discourse–and especially apart from modern street-language.  Its rhythms commanded our attention.  Its nobility created a receptive mood in us.

The King James Bible is a classic of literature because of its language. For centuries British and American poets have been influenced by that language and have borrowed from it when they wanted to give dignity to their utterances.  Today, unfortunately, many young people have not heard that language and do not feel its unifying force in our culture.     

Authors of the new versions often fail to preserve the poetry of the Bible. In any writing, the interplay between language and meaning is important, but it is especially so in poetry: to treat a poem as though it has a translatable meaning aside from its language is misguided.  It is like peeling away the layers of an onion to get to the edible part.  

Much of the Bible is poetry.  The 23rd Psalm, for example, explains the relationship of God to man, but that meaning is embodied in figurative language; as poetry, that relationship is described as that of a good shepherd to his sheep.  To take out that figurative language weakens the poetry and can lead to clumsy distortions of meaning.  

One of the most flawed of the new Bibles is the New English Bible (1970) published by Oxford University Press.  Here are its second and third verses from the 23rd Psalm:

    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
    and leads me beside the waters of peace;
    he renews life within me,
    and for his name’s sake guides me in the right path.

Let’s look at the three most serious weaknesses in the language of these verses:          

(1)”waters of peace” is not as good as “still waters” because it introduces the abstraction peace which is not in keeping with the concrete shepherd imagery;

(2) “he renews life within me” is worse than “He restoreth my soul” for two reasons: (a) “within me” is verbose (where else would life be?) and (b) the word life is not synonymous with the word soul since all biological things have life but not soul

(3) “in the right path” does not mean the same thing as “in the paths of righteousness”: the “right path” may be found on a map; but the “paths of righteousness” cannot be found on a map.

These faults are typical of this edition.  Suffice it to say that if this one is meant to be an improvement over the King James version, it is a dismal failure.

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Written by polemicscat

July 10, 2008 at 11:43 am

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